How do you price the priceless?

When a nation decides to count assets as well as incomes, it has to face some difficult questions.

The Financial Times has a report today on the efforts of the Treasury to publish the "whole-of-government accounts" for the first time. The usual practice for governments is to focus on income and outgoings, paying little heed to their assets and liabilities, but the fate of Greece put an end to that practice.

The problem with totting up everything a government owns is that their portfolio is rather different from that of, say, Barclays or John Lewis. They own things like Stonehenge:

Although unthinkable in practice, it would in theory be possible to price the site as if it were a business put up for sale, Mr Thurley [the head of English Heritage] admits. More than 1m people visit each year, with adults paying £7.50 each. “If we were to put Stonehenge on the market, we would probably sell it for a very large sum of money,” he says.

But applying a theme-park template would hardly have done justice to the ancient mystery of the stones, nor to English Heritage’s stewardship role. The fact that Stonehenge would have been ultimately lumped into an accounting category called “furniture, fittings and other” in the whole of government accounts would only have added insult to injury.

In the end, English Heritage kept Stonehenge and the vast majority of its treasures off the UK’s balance sheet by arguing that the cost of carrying out the valuation would have been out of all proportion to the benefits of disclosure. A similar approach has been taken by big museums and galleries, not to mention the Ministry of Defence, which declined to put a price tag on historical items such as the Enigma Machine, the second world war code-breaking device.

Thurley accepts that would be some benefits to English Heritage for valuing their less archaeological properties, since it would allow them to compare their performance against listed property management companies. It is hard to think of an acceptable use of valuing Stonehenge, though; the first chancellor to put the site up as collateral for a loan would probably be the last as well.

A real investment property; could do with some renovation. Credit: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.